Monday, October 24, 2011

Hell: Still Not A Thing

Back in March, I weighed in on the Rob Bell hubbub that was then storming the Christian blogosphere. Half a year late to the party, commenter “everdox” has this to say:

Sadly Rob Bell has made an attempt to contend with the will of God, and recreate in his own mind, the will of man and not God. We do not understand God, therefore all questions of sorts such as: would an all loving God create an eternal hell? Are off limits.

[snip – proof-texts]

Furthermore, read the book of Jude. I pray that God will lead you to a clear understanding of what is happening. Universalism can disguise itself as love all it wants, but is quite possibly the most cunning system satan himself has ever cooked up. Universalism opens the door to living life outside of the ten commandments amongst everything else Jesus talked about, because of the simple fact that we will all be saved.

This is clearly not the case.

[half a dozen more proof-texts]

My go-to blogger on this topic, Mr John Shore, rebuts these arguments more eloquently than I ever could:

“God Can Love Me; God Can Send Me To Hell. But He Can't Do Both.”

What Francis Chan (And His Ilk) Get So Terribly Wrong About Hell

(please read this one, everdox) Is God's Justice Different Than Ours? Hell, No.

So I'm not going to argue from logic and rhetoric and theology why I think everdox is wrong (though I will say, their first paragraph is awfully sad. Questions are off limits? What a tragically, crushingly restrictive response to human inquiry and intellectual activity. Spinoza's doing somersaults in his grave). I'm just going to explain why I, personally, psychologically, cannot possibly believe in hell (hell in the fire-and-brimstone-eternal-torment sense, that is, not the hell of self-awareness). It boils down to this:

Either I'm going to hell, or nobody is.

I've been living inside this head for twenty-wev years. I know exactly how terrible of a person I am. I know that I am totally self-obsessed, that I'm a hypocrite whose actions aren't in line with my beliefs, that I kind of have a soft spot for “Party in the USA”. If the universe is a merit-based operation, then I'ma burn, baby, burn.

“Exactly,” says the Christian right. “You deserve to burn, but because of God's grace you won't.” (Well, they say that until they learn that I'm an unrepentant gay-sex-haver, but since I am now happily and maybe permanently single we can get past that.)

“That's fine,” I say. “We're on the same page re: grace. I suck, but God's merciful. Fantastic. Here's my problem: why me? If God picks and chooses who gets saved, why the hell would God pick a douchebag like me? Why does God's grace apply to me but not to my best non-Christian friend, who is a demonstrably superior human to me in every measurable way?”

“Um,” says the Christian right. “Mysterious ways... beyond our comprehension... faith not works... can we talk some more about how gay sex is totally icky?”

You see, I can accept the part where all people miss the mark. (That's what sin, hamartia, actually is – missing the mark, falling short, failing to measure up.) I can accept the part where God, in mercy and grace, forgives us even though we don't deserve it. I cannot accept the part where God arbitrarily dispenses that mercy and grace according to whim, saving some of the mark-missers and condemning others just for the lulz. God is vast, ineffable, beyond human comprehension; but that doesn't mean that God is a capricious tyrant whose justice is diametrically opposed to human logic and ethics.

I mean, have you ever heard anyone argue for the existence of hell who thought they were going there? People who want hell to exist want it for other people. That right there should be ringing all your alarm bells. The traditional doctrine of hell is self-righteousness crystallized.

It must be nice to have the self-confidence to say things like, “Hell exists but I'm not going there.” Unfortunately I carry with me a constant awareness of my own crapness, so for me it's more like, “If hell exists I am definitely going there.” Since the salvific action of Jesus Christ assures me that I am not going there, hell ipso facto does not exist. Quod erat demonstrandum, verbum sapienti sat est, nunc est bibendum.


  1. I think at least some fundamentalists do believe they're going to Hell. That's why they pray the sinner's prayer: so they can escape it.

    Evangelists I've encountered will focus on "become a Christian because you don't want to go to hell" much more than "Become a Christian because God loves you."

    And apparently that's working on some people. It worked on me for a time. Yeah, there was a time when I believed I was going to Hell.

    Not that the belief in hell is never fueled by self-righteousness.

    Also, am I crazy or does Not Believing in Hell =/= Universalism ?

  2. I freaked out Mr. Shore recently with a comment of mine on one of his blog threads regarding Hell. He deleted the comment, but assurred me that we're cool. I'd just managed to write something really freaky and potentially triggering to some readers.

    He'd made some commentary about "Burning forever? Take that to any fourth grader and they'll laugh at you for being unimaginative."

    So, I prooved my imagination regarding the subject by posting a passage from one of the short stories (on my blog) wherein a character is forcibly sent to a kind of "Hell." Stangely enough, it wasn't hot, but it was pretty horrific. The poor man (an innocent person, too) had all kinds of things happen to a body he was no longer supposed to have. In the story, he is rescued from this, but -- it just shows I can imagine and write really freaky things.

    One might say I'm deserving of Hell simply because I can come up with such frightening imagery.

    The story is "Overridden," by the way, if you're curious. One of the freebie-things on my blog. Be warned - it is a freaky horror story that deals with heavy issues such as suicide.

    On one hand, I'm sorry for making a deletion-worthy comment, on the other, if my writing freaked someone out, I'm really proud that it has that kind of power!

  3. I found your blog!

    I can see reservations about Hell as a concept, since it basically sounds to a modern sensibility as "divine child abuse." Then again, one can make much the same argument for the Crucifixion of Christ. In the long run, it seems impossible for the idea of a completely loving God to send people to a place of eternal torment.

    However, what it seems like to me is that these arguments are really only responding to one very specific idea of Hell. Or at least, how afterlife works. Sure, the popular conception of Hell as a place of eternal fire and brimstone (or ice, if one is Dante) is something that carries a lot of cultural weight. However, I would say that the vast majority of Christians do not believe in the afterlife as a simply "Hell/Heaven" divide.

    To take a larger example: The Catholic idea of the afterlife not only had a Hell and a Heaven, but Purgatory. This would seem to offer some sort of mediation space for those who aren't perfect (which is the topic here). Now, you still have some issues because Hell still exists in this construct; it just seems a lot more just, since you won't go there for stealing a candy bar when you were 12.

    Perhaps you even run into the trouble of a non-binding Hell. Take C.S. Lewis' the Great Divorce, for instance. Hell rests on the choice of those who are in it to stay there, for whatever reasons they have. This doesn't involve God forcing everyone against their will to go to Heaven, and answers the question many have with Universalism: if God could have a perfect place in Heaven where people are free, why not on Earth?

    Besides that, one even has to acknowledge that the concepts that we are working on here are based on very specific assumptions. These assumptions being that Hell (or Heaven, for that matter), are specific places that we exist in much the same as we exist on Earth now.

    To take the Hell aspect of that, there are some Christians (Take Family Radio) who don't believe the damned are going to Hell. Simply that they will not exist anymore. Surely God doesn't owe us an existence, or God would be subject to condemnation for all the people who could have existed but didn't on Earth. In this way, God is simply letting people return to their original state (nonexistence) if they do not follow God's will.

    Anyhow, sorry if this is rambly.


  4. hey thanks for the well thought out reply, I had actually expected something along the lines of "i have no love in me" which is the cord some univeralists like to pull.

    for quite some time I struggled with whether or not I personally believe in a universal salvation, let me tell you my thoughts...

    first of all I am definitely not here to point fingers, I am way worse then any of you and furthermore, none of us have any hope to begin with if it was not for Jesus Christ.

    it may seem like a majority of christians sit on a high horse and have an (i hope you burn in hell attitude) which is quite sad. personally I have always said that I would love a universal salvation, not to continue in my worldly ways, but simply because I do not want to see anyone in hell.

    I have over the past year now examined in my own mind the evidence from both sides (universalist/fundamentalist) and no matter how pretty the picture can be painted for universalism, to accept that is to refute Jesus words of hell that he spoke of more then anything else. As the apostle Paul made pretty clear, no one should continue in sin that God's grace may abound, it is a deadly mistake.

    this is why Jesus says that we must literally give up and 'die' and follow him. we cannot be conformed to the world and anyone who is a friend of the world is an enemy of God.

    you are of course entitled to your own opinion but when presented with God's word this is what I draw, and I honestly can clearly see universalism simply being an excuse for people to live life the way they want, and not in a way according to Christ.

    God bless

  5. Thanks for responding so thoughtfully, everdox. My personal feeling is that Jesus' words about Gehenna/Hades etc. are not at all clear, and that the traditional fire-and-brimstone vision of hell is a medieval invention to terrify people into professing Christian orthodoxy. Like I said in my post "The Hell of Self-Awareness", I think hell is a state of mind.

    I agree with you that we can't look on God's grace as a Get Out Of Jail Free card that lets us sin all we want. Being a Christian should change the way we act and think, but I believe that change has to come from a place of awareness of God's love and grace, not from the fear of eternal punishment.

  6. I like what you posted because I feel like those that advocate Hell must have a totally different conception of it than I do. Some people, it seems, can read the Bible and say, "I'm doing exactly all that, and Jesus will forgive me." I read the Bible and say, "Look at all the mistakes I've been making. I can't possibly ever get to Heaven."

    And, right, ok, like you said, we should rely on Jesus because we're all sinners. Buuuuuut...God still wants me to do things, yes? Like go to church and praise Him, right? I mean, I guess that's where I don't get the difference between the faith and works argument. But that's going a bit off topic. In short, all I can see is how many ways God can find to punish me.

    And if you think that's a sad and fearful thing, then BINGO, you've (generic you, not Rainicorn specifically) just figured out the first twenty years of my life. And I'm so glad that you can read the Bible and be inspired, but my brain is screwed up, ok? So I'm just going to stay as far away from Christianity as possible for my own peace of mind because I doubt a loving God wants me to constantly hate myself.

    So kind of in response to everdox: I tried being a good person according to my Christian upbringing. I ended up doing and saying a lot of things I didn't feel, in my gut, were right, but I did them because I didn't want to go to Hell. I hurt people because of my approach. And then, I stopped the Christian thing, and suddenly, I was finding all the ways I ever wanted to make the world a better place and to live happier. When I lived in constant fear of eternal punishment, I reflected that out onto the people around me. When I finally believed I was a good person, that got reflected out.

    I don't know where I was really going with that. Sorry if I derailed.